Thursday, 27 October 2005

An Instance of Linguistic Nihilism

You might think it uncontroversial for me say that, if a man has one leg, he is a one-legged man; and if indeed you were to find it uncontroversial, there is hope for you yet; for of course it should be uncontroversial. But the world is populated by all kinds of ideologues and irrationalists and squarking parrots, and thus not even the most reasonable and sound proposition can be expected to escape some nitwitted objection.
.....Now that the timid man of modern sensitivites recoils from unpleasant realities, as a worm recoils from a lighted match, one can barely expect him to tolerate such a proposition as “he is a one-legged man”; for he is likely to object that it defines the man by a “negative” term, and thus is best eschewed. But this is nonsensical as well as cowardly. The term does not define him, it defines something about him. The predicate (“is a one-legged man”) has no exhaustive force upon the subject, that is to say, it does not say everything that can be said about him. In fact, it is a fallacy to believe that the verb “to be” acts as a sign of equivalence in an equation of subject with predicate. Rather, the predicate tells us something about the subject.
.....It ought to be similarly uncontroversial to say that, if a man has schizophrenia, he is a schizophrenic man, but controversy haunts this too:
To call people schizophrenic, as [the psychologist] Oliver James does most liberally, is to define them, label and name them by their illness. Something that medicine is belatedly trying to eschew.
John Foskett, Letter to The Guardian, 25th October 2005.
One can see the fallacy of predicate-subject equivalence in this; for calling people schizophrenic does not define them except in respect of a distinction between them and those who do not have schizophrenia – in other words, it defines that aspect about them that distinguishes them from non-schizophrenics. Now, if a man has schizophrenia, there are situations in which it is pertinent to communicate the fact of the existence of this mental illness in him, for which communication a label is necessary. Surely, then, if a psychologist is discussing schizophrenia, it is pertinent for him to label those who have schizophrenia as schizophrenic. (There are of course situations in which it is not pertinent to use the label “schizophrenic” as a discriminating term. If a man is schizophrenic, and someone asks, “Is he tall?”, and the answer comes as “No, he’s schizophrenic”, one sees immediately not only the uselessness of the discrimination, but also the absurdity of seeing “schizophrenic” and “tall” as defining the person in toto rather than an aspect of him.)
.....How then would our letter-writer prefer schizophrenics to be labelled? Well, as he makes clear, he would prefer no label at all. In other words, he would choose a neutral and “non-discriminating” label that does not communicate that a person has schizophrenia, one that would cover many or even all persons, a label such as “worthy citizen” or “human being” or some such fluff; and thus communication would be destroyed precisely in terms of what we wished to communicate, namely that the person has schizophrenia. And it is precisely thereby that we begin to glimpse the nihilism that lies behind objections to such discrimination; for in the besetting madness of nihilism is the desire to level and conflate, to make meaningful communication impossible.
.....I might after all label the letter-writer a fool, though this by no means defines everything about him, and does not, for instance, begin to sum up that he might be kind or cruel, humorous or sombre, conscientious or irresponsible. It does not begin to tell us whether he fancies his secretary, has ambitions to pilot an aeroplane, speaks in a deep voice, picks his toenails, or dances the Watusi on a Tuesday night. Rather, it is a label perfectly suited to distinguish him from non-fools.


dearieme said...

Given the sort of fool he is, I can form a pretty good idea of whether he is "humorous or sombre", since being humorous calls for some sense of proportion and some ability to identify the incongruous.

Deogolwulf said...

True enough.

David Duff said...

I could have done with you a week or two ago when I was taken to task for using the word 'cripple' as a categorical description of some-one who has lost the use of their legs. As I pointed out to the complainant, I refuse to be bullied out of using straighforward English words because some-one tells me that they and their chums now decide on the meaning of words, thus, of course, giving themselves a power over the rest of us. A few four-letter words whose meaning is utterly clear occurred to me, but I try not to use them - too often, anyway!

By the way, sorry to show my ignorance, and that of the OED, but what is, and whence cometh, the word 'fewtril'?

Finally, I have taken the opportunity to refer my two and half readers to your excellent post on the poodle-fakery of the modern art racket. Couldn't have put it better myself, and that is literally true!

Deogolwulf said...

Mr Duff,
Sorry to hear about your troubles with the power-mad loony language-despoilers.

"Fewtrils" is a word from Lancashire meaning trifles or things of little value. In the dictionaries, it always appears as a plural noun, but I have taken the liberty of using it in the singular.

Thanks for the referral.